Strolling down Church Street south of Wellesley these days, it’s hard not to notice the number of darkened storefronts and “For Lease” signs. While you might conclude this is a sign of decline in the Village, quite the opposite is true: because of intensification, land values are increasing, leading to a period of investment. As some businesses close down, others eventually come to take their place. Still, some of these storefronts have been closed for a while. Every vacant shop has a story. Let’s look at some of them:
This is the ideal vacancy: brief. Just like any retail strip, businesses close down and reopen on Church Street every year. Often they are expanding, moving up or across the street. When the stars align, there’s little down time, as with the new TORCH Pressed Sushi at 507 Church.
538 Church (Café California) Café California, which opened back in 1988, certainly had a good run. But business fell off under new management and in 2018 it closed its doors. Good news: the primo location was immediately scooped up by another restaurant and Cherie Bistro has just opened its doors.
542 Church (Fresh Burger) closed down in March 2019; however Chef Gourmet, a Turkish street food eatery, with a fun new patio, will be taking its place very soon.
77 Wellesley (Hero Burger) is closed at the moment, but it’s temporary. They had a pipe burst this winter, and they are taking the opportunity to do a complete renovation at the same time the exterior of the building is being repaired.
500 Church (Canadian Sculpture Centre) relocated to the Distillery District. In its place we have a vape shop.
500 Church (Timothy's World Coffee) will soon be replaced by a new 30 seat restaurant.
Sometimes circumstances make a space harder to rent, so shops stay vacant for extended periods.
501 Church (Priape) Adult emporium Priape closed in 2013 when the chain declared bankruptcy. The shop has been empty ever since, making it the longest running commercial vacancy on the strip. This property is very large for Church Street; most potential retailers would be looking for a smaller space. It also lacks infrastructure and would require a large investment to be repurposed as a restaurant or bar. Ultimately the owner may have to divide the property to make it more appealing to smaller retailers.
504 Church (Blyss / Church on Church) Blyss nightclub took over from Church on Church in 2016, but closed its doors just a year later. A tenant with plans for a restaurant was eventually found and renovations commenced in 2018. Unfortunately, one of the investors opted out of the deal and the reno came to a halt at the demolition phase. Either the property owner or a new tenant would therefore have to invest a significant sum to get a new business up and running in the space.
Real Estate Investment & Development
Land values in downtown Toronto have been going up a lot, and properties on Church Street have been acquired because real estate investment companies and developers see potential for long term profits.
Church & Wellesley Street – Northwest Corner
The businesses at the northwest corner of Church and Wellesley closed down after the properties were sold to developer ONE Properties. The Village BIA has worked with ONE Properties to animate the vacated storefronts until construction begins:
These solutions keep the corner vibrant, but it’s hard to predict what will replace them once a new tower is built. See our Development Watch page on this project for more information.
Church and Maitland - Northeast Corner
A large real estate investment corporation, KingSett Capital, now owns four properties from the Church Street Garage diner northward, including what used to be Cumbrae’s, All the Best and Statler’s. (The Starbuck’s building has not been bought out).
KingSett also owns the properties at the northeast corner of Church and Wellesley (housing Pizza Pizza, Wellesley Convenience, Adam’s Schwarma, Torch Bistro, Freedom Mobile and Ho’s Place), as well as numerous other downtown properties. KingSett contracts with Triovest to manage the Church Street properties; Triovest manages over 380 properties across Canada.
All the Best went out of business in late 2016; Cumbrae’s left its Church Street location when its lease expired, in late 2017. Statler’s closed down on Jan. 1, 2019 citing higher rent demands. So far, none of the spaces have been rented to new tenants, giving this 1/2 block of Church Street an abandoned feel, though fresh window paper has definitely improved things a bit, marketing to potential tenants.
The properties were in a state of disrepair and Kingsett has the deep pockets to make improvements. The Cumbrae’s space is being renovated and should be ready to lease later this year. Given that Kingsett’s properties at Church and Wellesley are all rented, it’s safe to assume that the company intends to refurbish and rent out the stores at Church and Maitland, at least in the short to medium term.
The Future of Church Street Retail
The long term future of Church Street depends on multiple factors, and one of the biggest is what will happen to the Kingsett and ONE properties. City zoning designates the retail strip as part of the “Church Street Village Character Area” and declares that “development and redevelopment should reinforce the core village area as a low to midrise pedestrian oriented main street with street related retail uses and narrow retail frontages.”
Kingsett’s website states that it “is actively engaged in all aspects of the development cycle, including site consolidation, design development, entitlement and construction.” It is a safe bet that Kingsett’s longer term goals would include the eventual sale of its properties to a developer. Kingsett is no doubt paying very close attention to the fate of the northwest corner of Church and Wellesley, where ONE Properties is proposing a tower well out of step with the Village Character Area. The final decision on that site will be precedent setting, determining how far a future developer can go beyond the City’s zoning of the Village.
Whatever combination of low, mid- or highrises we will see along the very core of the Church Wellesley Village a generation from now, developers can be pressed to keep the street pedestrian and retail friendly -- if citizens, local organizations, politicians and City planners are vigilant. A redesign of Church Street is overdue, and preliminary stakeholder discussions of ideas for an improved streetscape have begun. The resulting master plan will provide an opportunity to shape Church for the 21st century and assure that it remains a welcoming and vibrant street for generations to come. However, it will be years for a plan to make its way through the various phases of consultations and approvals, and longer still for it to be implemented.
In the age of online shopping and big box stores, the retail environment is more challenging now than ever, but specialized shops, services, restaurants, cafes and bars do still thrive on Church Street. There are good prospects for empty spaces to be occupied when motivated property owners work with innovative tenants.
The Village has a lot going for it. The population is growing. The Church Street Village BIA operates programs to improve the street environment and sponsors events to bring the community together. The Church Wellesley Neighbourhood Association works hard to make the entire Village more livable. And we have a City Councillor with a deep connection to the community. While empty storefronts aren’t a pretty sight, the future looks bright for Church Street.